While alt-rock launched into the mainstream on the strength of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers, like most other genres of popular music, the sound has more than its fair share of one-hit wonders.
Achieving popularity (and often notoriety) for one, brief shining moment, the following acts are all fleeting alt-rock contenders for whom chart and radio success was literally a one-shot deal.
While some of these acts often boast other quite noteworthy material, for all intents and purposes, the following ten songs are the product of genuine one-hit wonders. While some went on to success in other areas of the music industry, for others this was their one big break, the lone point of reference whenever they’re mentioned on VH1 countdowns and other nostalgia-based cable programming.
Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now” (1990)
The world was going through a number of changes in 1990, the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89 (and the symbolic end of the Cold War) chief among them. British band Jesus Jones melded modern guitar rock with the sample-heavy sounds of the dance underground, crystallizing with this breakout single that marveled at “watching the world wake up from history.” The tune was considered by Pres. Bill Clinton as a campaign song before he settled on Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” but his wife Hilary would revive Jesus Jones’ lone hit for her own presidential run in 2007.
Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside a Broken Phonebooth With Money In My Hand” (1996)
Singer Chris O’Conner had all but given up his rock and roll dreams and was working as an air traffic controller at LAX when he took one last stab at the big-time. Finding a box of old demo tapes and sending them out to a slew of record companies, a savvy label executive was intrigued enough by the tune to help O’Conner land a deal with Columbia. Featured in Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy, the B.B. King-sampling tune reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart and as high as No. 7 on the Top 40 Mainstream chart. The band’s follow-up single sank without a trace, but then again, titling the song “Motherf***er” didn’t help.
Fountains of Wayne, “Stacy’s Mom” (2003)
The band’s bassist and songwriter Adam Schlesinger has made no bones about this bouncy song being a tribute to pioneering rock band the Cars and their frontman Ric Ocasek, who himself allegedly thought the tune’s intro was a sample of Cars hit “Just What I Needed.” The song’s comedic music video paid tribute to popular 1982 teen movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with actress Rachel Hunter playing the role of the song’s titular character. It got as high as No. 21 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and reached No. 3 on the Pop Songs chart, but it really was everywhere in late 2003.
Len, “Steal My Sunshine” (1999)
The Canadian brother-sister duo of Marc and Sharon Costanzo struck gold with this feel-good song that’s built from a sample of the Andrea True Connection’s 1976 disco hit, “More, More, More.” Originally released on the soundtrack for 1999 movie Go, the track became a fast success, rocketing to No. 9 on the Hot 100. The band used its music video budget to fly a group of friends to Daytona Beach for spring break, also purchasing large amounts of alcohol to fuel the proceedings. While the group officially disbanded in 2008, Len returned in 2012 with “It’s My Neighbourhood,” a tribute to Toronto.
New Radicals, “You Get What You Give” (1998)
After releasing two solo albums, Gregg Alexander was signed to MCA as the New Radicals to record the album Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too. This first single from it was a worldwide smash hit, topping charts in New Zealand and Canada, reaching No. 36 on the Hot 100 and No. 8 on the Alternative Songs chart. The perennially underrated album went platinum in 1999, and “You Get What You Give” has been featured in a number of movies and TV shows, most recently Glee. Alexander unexpectedly disbanded the group before the release of a second single, going on to much success as a songwriter for other artists, winning a GRAMMY in 2003 for penning the Santana and Michelle Branch hit, “The Game of Love.”
Spacehog, “In the Meantime” (1996)
With grunge, gangsta rap and Britpop still ruling the charts, this U.K. band stood out with its moody and melodic glam-rock. Channeling ‘70s Bowie with a catchy guitar hook, “In the Meantime” jumped out of car stereos in the summer of ’96 like a breath of fresh T.Rex. The song would top the U.S. Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, going on to be featured in popular video games Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero 5. Lead singer Royston Langdon married rock royalty Liz Tyler (daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler) in 2003, with the couple separating amicably in 2008.
Phantom Planet, “California” (2002)
Originally appearing on the band’s second album, The Guest, in 2002, this song became a bona fide smash a year later after being chosen as the theme for popular mid-‘00s teen TV drama The O.C. Like Crazy Town’s “Butterfly,” it was also featured in 2002 flick Orange County as well as the accompanying soundtrack. Phantom Planet, which formerly boasted actor Jason Schwartman as its drummer during its peak popularity, went on hiatus in 2008, but regrouped for reunion shows in 2012 and has hinted at more dates for 2013. Phantom Planet singer Alex Greenwald has gone on to other projects, including indie-pop band JJAMZ alongside Maroon 5’s James Valentine and Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel.
Semisonic, “Closing Time” (1998)
Singer-songwriter Dan Wilson told The Hollywood Reporter that this ultimate end-of-the-night bar anthem was penned in a mere 20 minutes. “My bandmates were tired of ending our sets with the same song, so there was kind of an uprising where they demanded something different to end our nights with,” he said. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll write a song to close out the set,’ and then boom, I wrote ‘Closing Time’ really fast.” The tune was an immediate hit, hitting No. 1 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock Tracks and No. 11 on the Hot 100 chart. Nominated for the Best Rock Song GRAMMY in 1999 (it lost to “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette), it found a slice of new life after being featured in 2011 Justin Timberlake/Mila Kunis movie, Friends with Benefits. It still remains one of the best, and most-quoted, last-call songs at bars from coast to coast.
Crazy Town, “Butterfly” (2000)
This L.A. rap-rock outfit (which featured the late DJ AM) released debut album The Gift of Game, to little fanfare, though it helped them land slots touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ozzfest. While the record’s first two singles failed to connect, “Butterfly” was a breakout hit, topping the Hot 100 and leading to the album to sell over 1.5 million copies in America alone. Riding on a sample of Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Pretty Little Ditty,” the tune was used in 2002 movie Orange County, and referenced in “Starry Eyed Surprise,” a Paul Oakenfold track that featured Crazy Town’s lead singer Shifty Shellshock.
Chumbawamba, “Tubthumping” (1996)
Self-described as an anarchist band, Chumbawamba took their radical politics to the top of the charts with this massive hit, reaching No. 6 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 in November of 1997. Band members utilized the platform to the max, shocking the world by inserting a “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” chant (in reference to the controversial former Black Panther convicted of murdering a Philly police officer in 1981) into their performance of the song on Late Night with David Letterman. Some consider that outburst to be the band’s death knell, as Chumbawamba’s U.S. profile virtually evaporated after that moment.